The Lavabo House at the Jewish Cemetery
The history of the Lavabo House construction
In 1873 the management board of the St.Petersburg Jewish community concluded
an agreement with the City Council for the plot of land for a Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish community covered all the expenses for the cemetery encirclement
with a substantial fence and construction of a building for washing of the dead
and burial cervices.
In 1873 - 74 a wooden two-storied praying house was built at the project of
architect I. Shaposhnikov and a dwelling building for the guard and grave-diggers
was constructed at the cemetery. The construction was covered with the funds
raised by the subscription opened by the community management board. Those funds
totaled 14 thousand roubles.
At the end of 1906 the cemetery management board headed by baron D.G.Ginzburg
sent an inspection committee to the cemetery. The conclusion made by the committee
characterized the conditions at the cemetery in the following way: "the praying
house constructed 30 years ago is in such a shabby condition that it presents
a direct danger in the event of a large flow of people "?
In spring 1907 a committee for the development of projects of the buildings
required at the cemetery was elected. The committee sent two of its members
to Riga to observe the Lavabo House constructed at the local Jewish cemetery.
In May 1907 the committee developed the conditions of the architect competition.
architects took part in the competition. The committee which included academicians
G.D.Grimm and V.A.Pokrovsky, professor V.A.Kosyakov, architects and designers
O.R.Muntz and S.V.Belyayev unanimously declared the project of Y.G.Gevirtz the
best one of all the projects presented at the competition. Polished up together
with S.G.Ginger the project was passed to be carried out. The community management
board approved "the construction of the planned communal monument edifices ".
In September 1908 the foundation of the new praying house was laid. In 1909
under the supervision of Y.G.Gervitz, who took over the responsibilities of
the cemetery architect, the house was roofed. The spiritual rabbi Katznelbogen
observed the building and ensured that it suited the ritual requirements.
In 1910 the construction of the Lavabo and Funeral House was concluded, the
dome was covered with red copper and a boiler-room was constructed in the basement.
Painting and decorating began. The simplicity and strictness of the forms, absence
of the fancy decoration corresponded with the purpose of the building. The building
was constructed in the oriental style. The new praying house together with the
Choral synagogue formed unity of style of the Jewish cult buildings in St.Petersburg.
In summer 1912 the construction was concluded.
In the yard formed by the side arcades lawns were laid out, bushes and silver
firtrees were planted. The total area of the construction exceeded 1050 sq.m.
The useful space of the building came to 506 sq.m. The height was about 20 m.,
the length of the building was 52 m., the width - 38 m. The enfilades' length
was 30m, height - 6m. Inside the Lavabo House there were three main rooms -
the large Dome Room, where the burial services took place, the Lavabo room and
a room where the visitors waited for the burial service to start. Several subsidiary
rooms were present.
The building was faced with gray granite, the Dome Room was plastered, and
on the perimeter there were signs in Hebrew. Inside the room the two-storied
balustrade was located. The side rooms were tiled; the main entrance was made
in the form of an arcade. Embossed signs were created on the enfilades.
Simultaneously with the main building construction a lattice fence was mounted
on six massive brick plastered pylons.
On September 23rd 1912 (12 Tishrei 5673) the sanctification of the Lavabo House
took place. The ceremonial ritual with prayers sang by the cantor and chorus
was framed in the brochure published especially in honor of the event. On the
two marble plates displayed in the entrance-hall of the Lavabo House there were
two signs reminding of the event and enumerating the names of the construction
committee members and donors, whose donations laid the basis of the construction
monetary fund. The sign declared: "Laid on the 15th day of September 1908, sanctified
on the 23rd day of September 1912 ".
The Lavabo House was constructed under the supervision of the construction
committee, chairmen - baron D.G.Ginzburg, M.A.Ginsburg, and members of the committee
M.D.Varshavsky, A.A.Kaplun, and N.A.Kotler. Baron D.G.Ginzburg and court tailor
A.A.Kaplun contributed the main part of the donations.
In the pre-Revolutionary time the Lavabo House was used only for its proper
purpose. Torah was not studied here; nevertheless it was also a meeting place,
although on sad occasions. The dead was washed here. The relatives and friends
gathered in the Dome Room and the cantor recited the traditional prayers.
In the post-revolutionary years the chaos of the "old world" destruction enveloped
the Jewish cemetery as well. Many burial-vaults were destroyed, the valuable
monuments were removed, and the surrounding fence was pulled down. More than
once hooligans committed outrages at the cemetery, several arsons of the Lavabo
House took place?
In 1993 the Lavabo House at the Jewish cemetery was turned over to our Community
(the Jewish Community of St.Petersburg) by the City Council. The evaluation
report of the technical conditions of the building put together at the transfer
among the other details noted that:
The first attempts to reconstruct the building were met with a series of barbarian
fascist attacks. Thus, for instance, a vandalism act took place on the night of
13 - 14 Dec. 1996. The doors in the Lavabo House were broken open, bimah and the
washing table were destroyed, taliths and tefilins found in the room were desecrated,
the walls were covered with fascist symbols and anti-Semitic slogans and, to crown
all, an arson was committed. As a result of the fire roof in the lateral wing
of the building was burnt down completely, carved doors were burnt; the washing
room was damaged etc.
- Electricity, water supply, heating, canalization, connection
were absent in the building
- The general impression - desolation, dampness, mustiness
- Plaster from arches and columns fell to the ground, steel framework
striped, covered with corrosion products
- the floor in the central room is damaged, walls grew damp,
plaster is falling down
- on the perimeter of the vault there are horizontal cracks
- posts of the main entrance gates are unsafe, the bricklaying
- Maintenance is at the risk of life
Inquiry into the criminal case instituted at the Community request resulted in
nothing as usually.
Presently, in the times of active fascist vandals, the Community organized watches
by the Lavabo House with its own resources. These days the Community members
and volunteers joining them arrive for the 24-hour guard of the building and
cemetery. "The guards " put on the warmest clothes for the night (there is no
heating in the Lavabo House), arm themselves with what they have, many bring
their dogs along. It seems that thanks to these guards new attacks were avoided.
Presently the Community carries out urgent reconstruction and conservation
of the building. The roof reconstruction had been concluded. The final reconstruction
of the "warmth contour " (windows, doors) and electricity supply is scheduled
for the nearest future. The St.Petersburg branch of The Russian Jewish Congress
(RJC) offers special help and support in the building reconstruction. The Community
is thankful to the RJC members and all the other donors who transferred funds
and offered their skills and time for the reconstruction of the Lavabo House.